When one person's dog bites someone else in New Jersey, the state has specific laws and legal principles that will apply to any resulting legal claim. Here, we'll look at the details of these liability rules, including situations in which a dog owner might be liable for injuries caused by their animal, and possible defenses that owner might raise in response to a dog bite lawsuit.
New Jersey's Dog Bite Statute
New Jersey Statutes section 4:19-16 allows a person injured by a biting dog to hold the dog's owner liable if the person was on public property or was legally present on private property when the bite occurred. The statute specifically states that the injured person can hold the owner liable even if the dog has never acted viciously before, and even if the owner did not know of any incident in which the dog had acted viciously before.
New Jersey's dog bite law is a "strict liability" statute. In strict liability states, the owner of the dog is usually responsible when the dog bites someone, even if the owner didn't know the dog might bite and even if the owner took reasonable steps to restrain the dog.
It's worth noting that New Jersey's dog bite law only applies to bites. It does not apply to other injuries a dog may cause. A person injured by a dog may, however, bring a negligence claim in New Jersey.
Negligence-Based Dog Bite Claims in New Jersey
In New Jersey, a person bitten by a dog may sue under the state's dog bite law for damages (usually including medical bills, lost income, and "pain and suffering"). If a person is injured by other types of dog behavior, however, the statute does not apply. Instead, the injured person must seek damages through a negligence claim.
In a negligence claim, the injured person must prove that:
- the owner had a duty to take reasonable care to control the dog's behavior
- the owner failed to meet that duty ("breached" it, in legalese), and
- as a result of that failure, the dog caused harm to the injured person.
For example, suppose that a pedestrian is walking in a public park when a large dog jumps on her, knocking her to the ground and breaking her wrist. Because the dog did not bite the pedestrian, New Jersey's dog bite statute does not apply. Instead, the pedestrian will have to show the court that the injury occurred because the dog's owner did not take reasonable care to prevent the incident -- for instance, by properly leashing the dog in public.
Whether or not the dog has acted aggressively before may be important in a negligence claim, because it helps the court determine what measures are "reasonable" for the owner to take. For instance, an owner whose dog has never acted aggressively before may be using "reasonable care" if she puts the dog on a leash, but an owner whose dog is known to try biting strangers may be using "reasonable care" only if she uses both a leash and a muzzle on her dog.
Criminal Liability for New Jersey Dog Bite Claims
An owner of a "dangerous dog" in New Jersey may face criminal penalties if he or she does not follow the state's laws for keeping a dangerous dog. These include rules for notifying local authorities about the dog's dangerous past and taking steps to keep the dog restrained.
Criminal cases differ from civil dog bite lawsuits in two important ways. First, a criminal charge is brought by the state or local prosecutor's office, while a civil lawsuit is filed by the injured person directly. Second, in a criminal case, penalties may include imprisonment, fines, or other requirements, while in a civil case, liability is addressed solely through money damages. The owner of a dangerous dog who violates the state's dangerous dog rules, and whose dog injures someone as a result, may face both criminal and civil claims liability.
Defenses to New Jersey Dog Bite Claims
A dog owner facing a civil lawsuit for dog bite or other dog-related injuries may be able to raise two defenses: "comparative negligence" and trespassing.
In a "comparative negligence" defense, the dog owner argues that the injured person was partly or wholly responsible for the injuries suffered. For instance, an injured person who was provoking the dog when the dog attacked may be found to be partly responsible for the incident. Under New Jersey's "modified" comparative fault rule, the injured person's damages are reduced by the percentage of fault assigned to the injured person. If the injured person is found to be 50 percent or more at fault, he or she is barred from recovering any damages at all. Learn more: What if I am partly at fault for my dog bite injuries in New Jersey?
In a "trespassing" defense, the dog owner argues that the injured person was on someone else's private property without permission when the injury occurred. New Jersey's dog bite statute specifies that in order to recover, the injured person must be either on public property or lawfully on private property. Since "trespassing" occurs when a person is unlawfully on private property, a trespass by the injured person usually prevents him or her from recovering under the dog bite statute.
If the injured person was carrying out a legal duty like delivering the mail, however, he or she will not be found to be trespassing and may seek damages under the dog bite statute, even if the person did not have the owner's express permission to be on the property.